Review: A mother! of a movie

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Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem in mother!

Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem in mother!

Taylor says: two stars
There is a version of this review that would amount to schoolyard bickering: He hit me and I hit him back. So much of mother! hits me hard over the head with its symbolism, its Biblical and climate change allegory, that part of me wants to hit right back. I paid the local theater my money and I want to dismiss mother! as An Inconvenient Truth plus a quick skim through Genesis plus a little bit of intentional shock bait, submit a PowerPoint-cum-review of my own and call it day. 

And yet, climate change is the single most important political and global issue facing humanity today. It cannot but be taken seriously, notwithstanding the Biblical allusions around every corner.  

So, to give it a shot: We open on a woman wrapped in roaring flames, crying. Then a hand lifts some crystal-type-thing and puts it in place, and we watch a house rebuild itself and Jennifer Lawrence — who is credited only as Mother — bloom from a bed. 

Despite the technically successful catastrophe sequences late in the film, mother!’s affected visuals too-often feel weightless. Later in the film, a wide view of the scene strives for Edenic and comes off more Windows XP screensaver. 

Back in practical space, Lawrence wakes up and reaches behind her in the otherwise empty bed. “Baby?” she asks, a cinematic hammer in search of a nail. She’s alone but for a camera that tracks her obsessively as she searches the house. We are held close to her for much of the opening; there must be something coming around a corner. Finally she peeks outside, and out of nowhere it’s Him, a.k.a., Javier Bardem.

“Don’t sneak up on me like that!” she might’ve yelled. But that big ol’ grin of his too quickly melts all the tension she and we have been racking up, and any hint of chiding takes flight. 

This is something that for a portion of its runtime mother! does expertly. It puts Lawrence’s Mother into situations of increasing helplessness. Something feels wrong, but wrong in that precise way where she can only just register a complaint, can’t stop it. We identify with her discomfort and we identify too with her socialized impulse to be polite.

Later, when the movie comes off its rails, we lose this thread of identification, with Lawrence or with anyone. Aronofsky wants to walk a fine line between realism and fancy in this film while never stepping too deeply into one or the other. Refusing to choose is unsatisfying. 

For all the simplicity of its imagery and allusions, the ultimate failure of this movie comes from Aronofsky’s own failure to choose. Are these people types, or are they real-live, flesh-and-blood human beings? 

Despite, for instance, a valiant attempt by Michelle Pfeiffer to breathe life and shape into her turn as Woman, she is roundly failed by stock dialogue and characterization. At one point she makes herself a stiff lemonade, and stumbles such that we can practically smell the liquor on her breath, and yet still she must let us know that she is “on her second.” 

During a later scene practically imported wholesale from a romantic comedy generator Aronofsky found online to fill out his script, Pfeiffer chides Lawrence for not keeping Him (Bardem) “interested” with her plain white underwear. 

 In fact, for a film nominally about motherhood, about femininity — about women somehow — whenever it tiptoes up to anything resembling the lived experience of An Actual Woman, it leans on the old standbys. It's not surprising, that a male director relying on a metaphor about women — one that’s already been ground into semantic dust by both Captain Planet and your local granola hocker — couldn’t come up with something more subtle.

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